Friday, August 15, 2014

JOSEPHINE BLUMENFELD, Pin a Rose on Me (1958)

Sometimes my own rather warped sense of humor makes me hesitate when recommending a book, and this is definitely a case in point.  Although I found Josephine Blumenfeld's one novel (if you can call it that) distinctly uneven, I enjoyed it a lot, and in several spots I found myself laughing so hard that I couldn’t continue reading. Andy once again thought that I had lost my mind, and somehow reading even the most hysterical of passages out loud never quite comes across, so if anything he thinks I’m more mad when I try to share the humor.  But will others find it equally funny?

Pin a Rose on Me is a bit like one of E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady diaries as penned by Morticia Addams, or perhaps it’s like one of Shirley Jackson’s wonderful humorous memoirs of domestic life, if Jackson had let loose all the more morbid gothic impulses of her fiction instead of keeping them fairly muted.  Much of Rose’s wildest humor might just as well inspire shrieks or groans, and I'm afraid your sense of humor will need to be a bit on the dark side to go the hilarity route.

First, some background:

Josephine Blumenfeld was married to Pan Books founder Alan Bott, and was herself the author of occasional collections of humorous sketches and/or stories.  There’s little enough record of her work online.  I first came across the following short blurb, which instantly seduced me:  “A novel about a middle-aged English woman's quest for independence. Her search for her identity and a life outside of being a mother and grandmother. The story is richly detailed and includes what could be called madcap events.”

Kirkus, meanwhile, ended its review by saying that Rose was “in the tradition of many female commentators—the American Mrs. Appleyard and others of British origin—and adds to its international appeal by its complete femininity and happy scitter-scattering of random imaginings along with its pianissimo recital of daily doings. For that less than youthful audience.”

And finally, I was happy to come across a photo of the full cover of Blumenfeld’s later story collection See Me Dance the Polka (1962), which included not only an intriguing description of that book, but also some other critical reaction to Rose.  The Sunday Times made the obvious connection: “one of the best books of domestic sketches since E. M. Delafield's minor classic, The Diary of a Provincial Lady.”  (Never mind that condescending "minor" which made me grit my teeth a bit.  Obviously the Times writer was a "minor" critic.)  Nancy Spain called it “true and gay and touching.”  And Madeleine Henrey (whom some of you will know from frequent mentions to her in Virginia Nicholson’s WWII book Millions Like Us) was most lavish of all in her praise:  “Josephine Blumenfeld has written a little masterpiece, a book that will live beyond our generation and be for our daughters a poignantly nostalgic picture of the gentler aspects of mid-Twentieth century London.”

Alas, Henrey’s prediction was a bit overly optimistic, since the book appears to have barely survived its own generation, let alone becoming a perennial favorite for future generations.  But be that as it may.

Apparently, though, none of these commentators found Blumenfeld’s humor particularly dark.  "Gentler aspects" indeed!  But I’ll let you judge for yourself.  Unquestionably, the chapter which made me gasp for breath the most was an early one in which Mrs. Appleby’s daughter Flavia leaves her infant son Lucas with Granny while she goes for an afternoon of shopping.  Why Mrs. Appleby, obviously herself the mother of several children, should be so paralyzed and inadequate in dealing with an infant grandchild is never explained, but the terror, realistic or not, leads her to some hilarious/gruesome thoughts indeed:

She leaves a contented and gurgling Lucas in the garden, and we watch it from the drawing-room window. It laughs, it coos, it isn't sick, its eyes focus, and it doesn't look as though it were going mad. It looks nice. It is nice. I quite like it, I even feel proud to be its grandmother, and make a vow not to be intimidated by it; but to go on being proud of it.

I creep to the window and peer at Lucosade, or whatever his name is, through the side of the curtain. The curtain moves; he sees me, and waves a menacing arm in my direction. I drop to the floor like a stone and wait, and although I have sat on a drawing pin, nothing will get me up till I think he is asleep.

Type for a bit, then look again. It has changed its position and is lying face downward. Its red, knitted hat has slipped over its face, and from the window it looks as though the cap strings, tightly twined round its neck, are eating into the flesh. It looks as though it had suffocated and hung itself.

Should I go out? It is only ten past three, and she said it would be all right till five. Decide to leave it. If it is dead I can't bring it back to life by five, and if it isn't dead at least it's quiet.

Funny?  Offensive?  What do you think?  Never mind that one of the most jarring elements of this scenethe leaving of infants outside in yards or alleys or gardens for hours at a time, blissfully unattended—merely reflects the widespread predilection of the day, shocking to us perhaps, but obviously not to them.  But even apart from that, there's certainly a bit of darkness in Mrs. Appleby's anxiety.

Not all of Blumenfeld’s humor is quite so morbid, though it always has a tendency toward surreal exaggeration and a challenge to respectable standards.  Here she is preparing dinner for her visiting children:

Lay table and prepare spaghetti well in advance so as to get in some reading before they arrive. Read for too long, change in a hurry, rush down to kitchen, fall at stove, and bring down saucepan and spaghetti. Spaghetti falls out of saucepan and lies like a splintered baby on the linoleum. Fanny gets out of her basket and licks it. Rush to telephone and ring competent sister-in-law.

"What should I do?"

"Pick it up of course," she says in her competent, assuring voice.

"Yes, yes. But how does one pick up spaghetti?"

"With a big fork, silly. Twiddle it like the Italians do, have the saucepan near so it doesn't slip away again."

Evening and dinner success. AlI of them ecstatic about spaghetti.

And elsewhere in the novel, whether she is volunteering in a hospital ("'Is he dead?' I whisper to Miss Eureeka, because it seems to me there is no point in disturbing him if he is"), visiting friends in the U.S., or going yachting, Mrs. Appleby's experiences are always extreme and silly and distinctly subversive.  Not all of the chapters—which are, by the way, basically completely independent of each other and of any progressive plot, leaving me to wonder why this book is called a novel while Blumenfeld's other books are called stories or sketches—are equally entertaining.  E. M. Delafield she is not, despite the Times comparison.  But I found them all to be readable and fun, and worthy of resting on a slightly lower shelf in the library of domestic comedy.  (Oh, dear, I am treading dangerously close to the Times reviewer's condescension, aren't I?)  

I'm certainly going to be up for tracking down more of Blumenfeld's work, but will you be up for tracking down even one of her books?  I guess that depends on whether you've laughed at these quotes, or if you've gasped (or, worse, merely yawned).  Which is it?

In parting, I can't resist sharing this snippet of Mrs. Appleby attempting to come to terms with a legal document.  As someone who works in the legal profession, it gave me particular pleasure:

How beautiful they are, these deeds. Dignified, faultlessly spelled, and generously spaced on voluptuous pale blue paper, edged and topped by cherry-colored margins. Lovely to look at, and delightful to hold, but even my extra strong desk lamp cannot help me over sentences such as…

"Trustees of the Trustees. In consideration of the said party. Accumulations of weather. The Beneficiary's retrospective statutory power of parties or seals. In this first year of five million thousand and forty six, in the month of yesterday, to be signed at the afore-shown crosses, here, there, and everywhere, in the presence of two witnesses, both of whom must leave the room simultaneously or apart at the time of signature, giving their full size, stature, and occupation at time of birth."


  1. Oh, my...! Firstly, I must admit legal documents, including IRS forms, leave me feeling the way this last quote did.
    ‘But it’s not MILLION... Surely that’s a typo???
    “occupation at time of birth” is impossibly... improbably... uh...
    Exactly how reading some of those IRS “explanations” make me feel.

    I'd be up for reading a chapter or two... just to dip a toe into the waters of this, uh, oeuvre?

    Must admit I keep being reminded of a quote attributed to Stella Gibbons ("Cold Comfort Farm”) in Lynne Truss' introduction to C.C.F., and footnoted as being from "Listener," by Libby Purves, p. 639.

    And if you can follow that without insanity creeping in, here's the Gibbons' quote:

    "I think, quite without meaning to, I presented a kind of weapon to people, against melodrama and the over emphasizing of disorder and disharmony, and especially the people who rather enjoy [underscored] it. I think the book could teach other people not to take them seriously, and to avoid being hurt by them."

    Perhaps this is another weapon against another darkness?


    1. I like that idea, Del, and what a great quote from Gibbons, another writer I really love. Probably humor is often used as a weapon in that kind of way, which is why there's a fine line between funny and offensive? Anyway, I appreciate the excuse for taking Blumenfeld's book more seriously!

  2. As far as leaving babies outside in all weathers goes, I am tempted to say, as a baby of the early 1940s, that we all survived :-)

    My Family Doctor book of the 1930s merrily advises that one put the child out in its pram after the 6am feed but that in winter "it is permissable to wait till sunrise". Should you have to go out yourself then ask a neighbour to look at it periodically but (in italics) to on no account pick the child up.

    Hard times eh?

    1. It's true, Cestina, and honestly, although it always sort of jars me when I read about it, it was probably quite an effective method of making children a bit more self-sufficient and healthy, and could certainly be no more damaging than today's "helicopter" parents, always hovering neurotically around their kids. Perhaps it's just as well I won't ever be raising children! :-)

  3. I wonder if this is the same Josephine Blumenfeld who wrote "Shrimps for Tea" in 1930? I haven't read it but am researching libraries in Ireland in the 1920s and 30s, and came across an intriguing reference by a librarian to this text in a list of books which he declared to be obviously inappropriate for wholesome Irish Catholics :) Perhaps "shrimps for tea" had a vulgar resonance which is now unintelligible to me, like "do you fancy a bit of 'ow's yer father?" :) Incidentally, in the same article, the librarian observes that observes that the public library must cater for all patron tastes and refers to the informal categories of lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow, asserting that "Ireland possesses a curiously large class which I must label 'no-brow'", a consequence of what he perceives as the failures of those bodies responsible for the provision of Irish education "for centuries past". Best wishes from a furrowed no-brow on the south coast of Ireland!

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, Shrimps for Tea is definitely the same author. I've been meaning to read more of Blumenfeld's work for ages, but haven't got round to it. No idea, then, what the librarian was referring to about the book, but I'm rather interested to find out!

  4. I have just discovered Blumenfeld's Pin a Rose.....sitting amongst an eclectic range of books that span the last sixty years the! The shelves are in a former stately home, now a gentile residential home; a fitting retirement abode for Mrs Appleby!
    I have devoured it over two evenings propped up in bed and laughing aloud. Blumenfeld does share my dark sense of humour and I have delighted in her frank, hilarious stream of consciousness. It is a joy to discover that my own somewhat sceptical, often outrageous view of my friends and family,my immediate environment and the wider world, are shared by a woman experiencing similar perspectives when I was but a child in the world she is describing. I will keep this little treasure close in order to delve into now and then when I need reassurance that my sense of humour is not that bizarre.


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